#Curriculum, Leadership, Learning, Preparing for Adulthood, Purpose, SEND

Rebuilding Communities in Education (Part 1)

By Anita Devi

At the start of half-term (February 2021), I woke up to a vivid dream, I had had in my sleep:  I was at an educational institution, I use to work at.  This was positioned in the future.  The place was buzzing! There was a real coming together of different generations all learning different things (academic, the arts, and vocational studies).  This institution was back to being the learning hub of the community.  Some of you might say educational institutions have remained the learning hub throughout COVID19 and lockdown.  To some extent, this is true.  However, equally we have lost much that we need to regain as well as define and rebuild a new world going forward. in this blog two-part blog, I hope to share some thoughts on rebuilding communities in education.  I do not claim to be an expert, but I have given this some thought and held roundtable table discussions with other thought-leaders.  In each part, I will focus on the learner, the operational and the strategic.  Both parts have a different emphasis, but I believe, it is this twin track of thought, that will enable us to rebuild together.

Nelson Mandela is often quoted as saying, “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.”  COVID19 was a global war and this blog is all about how we find or re-establish peacetime.  SARS-CoV-2 virus, which causes Covid-19 has recently been reviewed in Forbes (August 2020) as to whether it makes for a good bioweapon.  Biological warfare and bioterrorism are not new.  Historically, the United States, Iraq, former Soviet Union, United Kingdom, Japan, and Canada all used to have biological weapons programs.  As a young adult working in London, I distinctly recall being involved in peace politics’ services to commemorate the 44th Hiroshima Day (6th August 1945).  Over a decade ago, training teachers in Vietnam, I visited The War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Min City, where I saw how Orange Agent had led to an increase in disability amongst children and unborn babies. The impact of global events like this last and that is why it is important I feel, for us to start focusing on the rebuild.

The Learner

Over the episodes of lockdowns and reintegration, emphasis has been placed on mental health, particularly of learners. The World Health Organisation (WHO) states in its constitution that “Health is a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.”  Globally, therefore we have been challenged by the pandemic itself, as well as the hidden consequential health symptoms.  As the vaccination programme is rolled out and we begin to regroup, it is this holistic dimension of health, we need to consider.  One bright young man in my neighbourhood is an avid cricket player.  Being denied the ability to play, meet with his team-mates and enjoy this past time has made him question the point of getting up each morning.  Equally, younger aged children from one of my networks are now determined to work in the medical field to find cures to diseases known and unknow to mankind.  The point I am making; this has affected us all differently.  Lockdown & COVID19 may be global terms, but what it means to each of us experientially will differ.  The differential is due to seen and unseen factors.  What I can say with certainty is, at some level we have ALL experienced grief and loss.  This is not just about losing loved one.  Though, that carries a deeper level of pain and grief.  However, not being able to do, say or relate in normal ways has been a challenge.

Recognising this loss and grief as a universal event, and yet a personal experience hopefully will make those of us who teach think about conversations and relationships in the classroom.  From an individual and community rebuilding perspective, we need to keep asking each other about our experience and what that meant.  This will not only help to unpeel layers, but it will aid the healing process too. Teaching in London, after 9-11, I made an independent decision to put the formal curriculum on hold and focus all learning on ‘I belong to a community, where I am loved and respected’.  The school was located in economically deprived area and my year group came from a mix of ethnic backgrounds, which included two Muslim boys.  We talked a lot during that time, we defined our dreams for the future, as well as gave voice to our fears.  It took three days of a variety of learning PSHE / Citizenship activities before the prejudice towards the two Muslim boys manifested.  The children wanted to blame someone, in order to make sense of their world being turned upside down.  As a community, we were hurting.  I am a Christian, by faith and we believe strongly that when one person is hurt, we (as a body) are all affected.  We addressed the misdirected views in a wholesome way and established a healthy learning community in the school, one again.  Imagine, if I had just done a tokenistic ‘how do you feel?’ mental health check-in activity and then moved onto the curriculum.  The prejudice and fear would have still existed and continued to grow undercover.  By brining it out into the open, we were able to challenge false beliefs and reunite.

Consider:

  • What beliefs (true or false) have the learners we care about developed regarding COVID19 and humanity, as a whole?
  • How will this experience affect their dreams for the future?
  • What questions do our learners have?

I am not saying we need to have all the answers, but we do need to make space for conversations.

Social emotional mental health does not happen in isolation.  The three dimensions are connected.  Too often, we just focus on mental health.  Yet, making time for the social and emotional will feed into better mental health.  Spend time exploring each and the interconnectivity between the three.  You can find a few ideas here

Before I move onto operational thoughts, I want to raise the point that there is a fine line between anxiety and fear, though they can both manifest similar symptoms.  The continuum of time (past, present and future) can trigger different stress responses.  I am no expert in this area, though I do have a basic knowledge.  What I can say, though in the days ahead we are going to need to be observant of our learners, noting any patterns, sudden changes and spirals of decline or unusual hysteria.  Critical to our observation antennas being acutely sharpened, it is important we establish good relationships with our learners.  They need to know there is someone they can talk to; someone who will listen, respect them and help (including signposting or referrals to specialists). As practitioners, we need to do this, whilst being mindful of our own mental health and wellbeing needs.

Operational

Two core elements of developing resilience are self-efficacy and social problem solving. Curiosity can be the result of interest and/or the lack of information, knowledge, and skills in an area.  As we connect back in our classrooms over the academic year, think about how the curriculum can be delivered through an increase in problem solving activities.  This will help our learners begin to re-establish a sense of agency and autonomy.  A few young people have shared with me their sense of helplessness during this pandemic.  For many they are filled with questions about identity and purpose.  Engaging young people in social problem solving, through the curriculum enables young people to make choices and think things through.

We need to identify gaps in learning and embed pathways for progress, but fundamental to this will be the learner’s own aspirations.  Aspirations connect the future, with core activity in the now.  Using classroom activities to demonstrate to learners they can make a difference and they can have an impact; we are establishing a foundation for dreaming and achieving.  A deeper skill involved in problem solving is the ability to choose and recognise the consequences of choice.  This involves a broader range of critical thinking skills, which in time will feed in academic attainment and achievement, as well as socialisation skills.  Choice is something, we can and should offer our learners with complex needs too.  Fixed choice questions (A or B?) is still a choice and it puts the learner in control.

Strategic

In Part 2 of this article, I will invest time in unpacking on how we collectively can define the new normal.  For now, I ask you to take a piece of paper, reflect and note down:  what lessons have you personally and professionally learnt from COVID19?

I recently read an anonymous quote, “education is the passage to progress”.  What a beautiful image and something real and tangible as we emerge out of this life experience.  Therefore, using the thirteen types of knowledge, I leave you with thirteen questions to reflect on individually and as a team.  To be clear, knowledge in my mind relates also to awareness and familiarity gained through experience of a fact or situation.  There are no right answers to any of these questions … it is just about your view and experience. Both of these will shape your attitude, beliefs and behaviours in the rebuilding of communities in education.

1) Posteriori knowledge:  What have you learnt from COVID19 and lockdown?  What are your three key takeaways?

2) Priori knowledge:  What elements of your worldview are you retaining from a time before COVID19?

3) Dispersed knowledge:  How would you describe your lockdown experience?

4) Domain knowledge:  What specific areas of learning have you developed and enhanced during the pandemic?

5) Empirical knowledge:  What are your observations about the impact of COVID19 on your community and circle of influence?

6) Encoded knowledge:  Looking back, what signs or symbols will remind you of the pandemic?

7) Explicit knowledge: What artefacts of expression do you have of the COVID19 experience?

8) Known unknowns: List three questions you have about COVID19 and another three questions about the future, as we begin to rebuild?

9) Metaknowledge:  Can you think of any metaphors to describe the pandemic experience for you?

10) Procedural knowledge:  In responding to COVID19, are there any procedures you have adopted that you would keep, or are there things you use do, which you will now drop or improve?

11) Propositional knowledge:  What fact-based information can you recall about the COVID19 experience?

12) Situated knowledge:  How has your community grown or developed through the pandemic?  What has been the greatest loss and the greatest gain?  How do you know?

13) Tacit knowledge:  What have you gained mastery over during this season and what impact has this had on your emotional well-being?

I constructed these questions to help us all reflect to rebuild.  You may have better ones.  Do please share these in the comments. This will help us grow together.  Some leaders may choose to use these questions to structure a staff meeting or even stimulate conversations with our learners.  Part 2 of this blog will be published on 3rd March 2021.  Till then, stay safe.

Postscript:  As I started writing this piece, I received instructions from the NHS, that I am required to shield until 31st March 2021.  I had my first vaccination on 25th January 2021.  I have not been asked to shield prior to this and receiving the communication did make me reflect on how much I value choice and my freedom.

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About Anita Devi

As a former SENCO, Senior Leader, School Improvement Advisor, local authority SEND Advisory Teacher and Healthwatch Trustee, Anita Devi carries a wealth of experience in developing Leaders of Learning.  Her own teaching career spans early years to post grad in the UK and overseas and Anita lives her why through her belief in the joy of learning and the power of purpose.  In 2017, Anita was awarded the prestigious international Influential Educational Leaders Award for her SEND Leadership Pipeline strategy developing professionals from initial teacher training to advanced and experienced SENCOs.  Currently a PT PhD student, Changemaker Education Consultant & Founding CEO of #TeamADL (a not-for-profit) In 2019, the team were selected as finalists for The Disability Awards alongside some top multinational companies. More recently, working with NASBTT, Anita has written the first SEND book for Early Career Teachers.  #TeamADL have also launched in 2020 SEND Leaders Connect Advanced and SEND Leaders’ Appreciation Day.